Title: 2010 Ag-Environmental: Arapaho Citrus Management
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
Pete Spyke has been involved in citrus all of his life. A third-generation grower, he graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Florida, and later became a citrus specialist with the University’s Cooperative Extension Service working closely with growers implementing new practices in fruit production.
In 1986 he began Arapaho Citrus Management, Inc., specializing in grove management, tree planting, and irrigation installation. Like all Florida farmers, Pete has faced his share of challenges -- from natural disasters to economic downturns -- and he’s survived them all. But one potentially devastating threat to the industry forced Spyke to re-evaluate the very way citrus is grown in Florida.
Greening is one of the most serious, incurable citrus diseases in the world. Once a tree is infected with the bacteria, production is reduced and the fruit is not suitable for commercial sale. Since it takes many years for a citrus tree to become profitable, re-establishing a traditional grove would be extremely risky for growers, and for some it would be the end of their citrus businesses.
Always interested in new technology and sound farming practices, Spyke has frequently traveled abroad to research innovative techniques. When citrus greening was found in Florida, he went to South Africa to learn how growers there were able to produce high-yielding, quality fruit in areas that had greening. Armed with what he’d learned, Spyke returned to his home in Fort Pierce and within six months had a new grove in the ground and a new way to grow citrus.
The new grove employed open field hydroponics with advanced production systems. This allows the trees to produce high-quality fruit at a youngerage, which is important because greening shortens a tree’s lifespan. The two-pronged approach combines high-density planting with frequent pulse irrigation.
Through open hydroponics, irrigation systems give the new trees a precisely calculated daily mix of water and small amounts of fertilizer that matches the exact needs of the trees, allowing faster growth and higher production of fruit with better quality while using much less water and fertilizer than conventional growing methods.
Pete Spyke: “When you drip on the water and fertilizer through the day, the trees form a very dense root ball under the emitter. And that’s what you begin to manage. That allows you to turn the tree on and off. If you want it to stop growing, you just stop putting on as much water and fertilizer and it will stop. Or if you want it to start, you can water and fertilize in a way that it will begin to grow rapidly vegetatively.”
Though newly planted citrus trees typically begin bearing fruit in their fourth year, by using the open hydroponic system, Spyke’s young trees began producing at only two.
Also by planting groves with narrower rows and trees closer together, an acre’s yield is substantially greater in the early years of the planting. So when a tree becomes infected with greening and it’s removed and destroyed, the loss doesn’t impact the overall harvest numbers as greatly as if the grove were planted in the traditional, less dense method. When the number of trees remaining is no longer cost-effective, the grove can be plowed under and re-established.
In South Florida -- where urban, environmental and agricultural needs compete for water, and water quality is a priority -- open hydroponics does more than reduce a grove’s use of water and fertilizer. It also minimizes agriculture’s impact on the environment by preventing any leaching.
Pete Spyke: “Since we’re only applying a day’s worth of fertilizer and a day’s worth of water to a hungry mass of roots all through the day, everything stays in the tree. We’re not getting leaching of groundwater or storm water runoff. And with larger scale projects, we really see the ability to actually create a system where the environment doesn’t even see the grove. It doesn’t know it’s there.”
Spyke was the first grower in Florida to use the system and it proved so successful that researchers at the University of Florida and the USDA have included it in a number of long-term studies.
William Castle: “He was the first one to really initiate an open hydroponic advanced citrus production system in Fort Pierce on his property. And as a result of that, we began to discuss a changeover of our project here at Water Conserv II into a similar type of project.
At the experimental groves at Water Conserv II near Winter Garden, the open hydroponic system, microjet and traditional drip irrigation systems are being compared for water use, the trees’ growth rate, and the impact on fruit quality.
William Castle: “Pete’s contribution has been significant, because not only is he able to do the conversion for us, but his intellectual involvement, I think, is a key element in all of this.”
For travelers along U.S. Highway 301, The Orange Shop in Citra, Florida has been a familiar landmark. The retail and gift fruit shipping operation is an outlet for premium citrus straight from Pete’s groves in Citra, Weirsdale and the Indian River. Open for business every year since 1936, Pete and his wife, Cindy, have owned the shop since 2001. One of the last true roadside fruit stands remaining in the state, it’s changed very little over the years and Spyke appreciates its Old Florida quality. The rural setting for this small business is something he misses in Davie, the town where he grew up.
Pete Spyke: “I can trace my roots back to a day when I was driving home down the Turnpike and looking at South Florida, what Broward County had become. And I thought that was a shame, because the Davie of my youth is no longer there. It’s pretty much covered up in urban development. I finally said to myself, you know what, you can either feel bad every time you come back to Davie, or you can try to do something to change it. What’s it going to be?”
Spyke became pro-active in the planning community. Using his talents as a grower and scientist he offered his unique perspective to a number of boards and committees. He participated in the committee that drafted the Indian River Citrus Best Management Practices Manual, a set of guidelines for growers to improve water quality in the Indian River Lagoon. One of Arapaho’s groves was used as a demonstration to show regulatory agencies how these BMPs would be applied.
While serving on the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council in the 1990s, Spyke chaired the Strategic Regional Policy Plan Committee, and later the full council. There he helped form a plan that received national and international recognition for sustainable development.
Spyke’s diverse experiences led to his work on St. Lucie County’s Towns, Villages and Countryside, a plan that integrates agricultural land use and new communities, providing a model for development in Florida.
Charles Shinn: “Pete has been concerned that agriculture will become a thing of the past. And Pete has been integral in trying to educate the urban community of the importance of agriculture to this community and to this region. They want green space. Well, we’ve got to get them to understand that green space is agriculture. He’s been working very strongly with organizations to maintain agriculture in this environment and maintain that it’s integral to the future of Florida.”
With assistance from the Florida Farm Bureau and the South Florida Water Management District, he began working on “The Grove of the Future,” a concept to demonstrate agriculture’s value beyond just producing fruit and other crops. From using a community’s wastewater for irrigation to providing recreational opportunities for residents, new communities and the agricultural lands that surround them form a mutually beneficial relationship.
Pete Spyke: “We want to create a lifestyle opportunity for people that wouldn’t have if they live in town over here and the farms are over there. We want to get the two of them next to each other. The more they’re integrated, the more values you can have so you have recreational values. You have social values. You have aesthetic values and sort of a rural lifestyle. And this is the best way I can describe it. We want to try to create a rural lifestyle in an urban setting.”
In whatever he does Spyke has the ability to see things from a different perspective. From making agriculture a relevant, profitable component of urban communities to finding new, environmentally friendly ways to grow citrus, Spyke is committed to seeing the industry flourish, anticipating the next phase in keeping agriculture a sustainable part of Florida’s future.Pete Spyke: “One of the areas of great interest we have right now is participating as either advisors or consultants with people to help them design rural spaces in a way that they can interact with urban communities. And the ability to know it well enough to translate that knowledge onto a piece of paper and create a design, I think, is the next frontier. It’s the next place we have to go. And it’s probably the thing that excites me as much as anything else that is happening right now.”